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Aberdeen - the City

'ther gardings and orcheyards adjoyning; every garding hes its posterne, and thes are planted with all sorts of trees which the climat will suffer to grow; so that the quholl toune, to such as draw neer it upon some syds of it, looks as if it stood in a garding or litle wood.? - Parson Gordon

Maps of Aberdeen
Land around the Rivers Don and Dee has seen human activity since at least 6000BC. The rivers offered access inland, sources of food and water and stable ground in an area of lower lying coast. Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age finds indicate on-going settlement in the area.  The Roman settlement of Devanna may have been at a site near the present day City and Aberdeen could be the ?Apardion? mentioned in the Heimskringla Saga. Aberdeen as we know it today began with two main areas of settlement; Old Aberdeen and what became known as New Aberdeen (to the south). They developed on a series of sand and gravel mounds aligned north to south, between the Rivers Don and Dee. Aberdeen was ideally positioned for trade with Scandinavia and the East Coast of Scotland during the medieval period. Fertile agricultural land provided wealth for land owners and the discovery of granite, its export and use in building Aberdeen during the C18th and C19th gave rise to the city?s well known nickname ?the Granite City?.

Old Aberdeen manages to retain its charm as a village surrounded by the City. It developed around religion and education evident from the physical survival of St Machar?s Cathedral and King?s College. It is tradition that St Machar founded Old Aberdeen?s first church during the 6th century overlooking the Don. By the medieval period both documentary and physical evidence exists of ecclesiastical activity. David I established a new Bishopric at Old Aberdeen in 1125/30. St Machar?s Cathedral dates from at least 1370 but probably replaced a building of around 1160. Canons resided in the Chanonry. William Elphinstone established a college dedicated to St Mary in the Nativity in 1495. It became known as King?s College. Old Aberdeen was established as a Burgh of Barony on 26 December 1489 by James IV and had a small market.

New Aberdeen Aberdeen or New Aberdeen was established by the time of King David I (1124-1153). St Nicholas Kirk, or the Mither Kirk, is thought to originate from before 1157, and was one of the largest medieval burgh kirks in Scotland. Alexander II established a Merchant Guild in 1222 which through successive enactments was created a powerful organisation whose influence was to shape the life and fabric of Aberdeen. Aberdeen developed around Castle Hill, St Katherine?s Hill and Gallowgate Hill. Castlegate was a commercial area from an early period. Alexander I (1107-24) cited Aberdeen as one of 3 trading centres north of the Forth. By the end of the medieval period Aberdeen was one of the wealthiest burghs in Scotland. Education played an important role in the life of New Aberdeen. Marischal College was founded in 1593. Both King?s College in Old Aberdeen and Marischal College put Aberdeen on the European map as an educational centre.

Early C19th Expansion Unparalleled urban growth due to estate restructuring and industrialisation took place between 1660 and 1800 leading to pressure to expand the city beyond the tightly confined medieval streets. Eleven new streets were opened or improved in the second half of the C18th and early C19th century. Marischal Street created a direct link between Castlegate and the quayside and demonstrated how Aberdeen?s hilly environment could be overcome. Further bridging at the Denburn and the setting out of Union Street and King Street after 1800 freed up space for development along elegant planned streets. Expansion was predominantly a result of private sector speculation by the Trades and through the Land Association, later the City of Aberdeen Land Association.

Footdee  The original settlement developed about the Church of St Clements, rebuilt in 1828 by John Smith. It was an area of industry and fishing. Smith laid out the ?new town? of Footdee at the extreme East End of the harbour at Sandness as two squares. Although Footdee (Fittie) has always been a part of Aberdeen it has a distinctly different fisherfolk ambience. 

Torry - Granted a Royal Charter by King James IV in 1495, Torry developed from the late medieval period as a fishing and industrial community. Torry and Girdleness played an important role in navigation and defence of Aberdeen?s harbour. Stevenson?s lighthouse opened in 1833; Torry Point Battery was built in 1860. Torry was joined to Aberdeen by the 1829 Wellington Suspension Bridge and later Blyth?s 1881 Victoria Bridge. It was incorporated with Old Aberdeen into the City of Aberdeen under legislation of 1891.

Aberdeen Video 1949

Aberdonia 1661 with Kings College inset on the top right. Castle Hill is at the core of the map and Old Aberdeen at the top near the River Don two distinctly separate burghs.

Our notions of the older Aberdeen are based on the map drawn by Parson James Gordon of Rothiemay in 1661. The town had been much the same for the three centuries before 1661, and did not change much until the beginning of the 19th century. Parson Gordon observed that ?the most considerable part of the city stands on three hills: the Castle Hill, St. Katherine?s Hill and the Gallowgate Hill?. Aberdeen in 1661 had a population of only about 5,000, and consisted of about sixteen streets, most of which had long back gardens which covered more ground than did the streets and houses themselves. As the population expanded, these gardens were them selves built on, resulting in considerable congestion and squalor, and were accessed by courts, pends and closes cut through the original house, e.g., Peacock?s Court in the Castlegate.

In 1661, there were no houses westwards of the Denburn, nor northwards of the Loch, no Ferryhill or Rosemount, no Union St., King St., Marischal St., George St., Market St. or Bridge St. There was the considerable elevation of St St. Katherine?s Hill, so-named after the chapel on its summit dedicated to St. Katherine of Siena. The chapel was founded in 1242 but was in ruins by 1661. St. Katherine?s Hill sloped down to the Netherkirkgate to the north, Putachieside (Carnegie?s Brae) to the west and to Shiprow to the south and east. St. Katherine?s Hill was obliterated during the construction of Union St. and Market St; the Adelphi Court, built 1810, lies on its former crest. The only remnant of St Katherine?s Chapel is a 15th century red sandstone grave slab set in the north boundary wall behind No. 24 Adelphi. The name lingers on in St. Katherine?s Wynd, (then adjacent to E&M?s), which descended from the Netherkirkgate to Shiprow. The circular route around the former base of St. Katherine?s Hill is still apparent in the curve of Shiprow, the Netherkirkgate and Carnegie?s Brae.
Topographically and historically complex area Ships would navigate the Denburn as far as Belmont Street hence the name Patagonian Court

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

The Loch to the north of Aberdeen was fed by burns flowing in from the north and west and was the Burgh?s main source of fresh water; it also supplied three of the Burgh?s many mills, such as that at Flourmill Brae. Evidently more water was being abstracted from the Loch than drained into it because Parson Gordon depicts it as ?the Marsh formerly known as the Loch?. By 1800, the Loch had shrunk to about the area now covered by Loch St., and by 1838 it had disappeared completely. The area now known as the Loch lands became George St., Charlotte St., St. Andrew St. and John St.

Gibbs Map of Aberdeen 1888


1789 - the old road into Aberdeen from the south, via the Hardgate, Windmill Brae and through the Green. The medieval place-name ?Trinity?, which goes back some 800 years on this site to the Trinitarian or ?Red? Friars, to whom William the Lion (reigned 1165?1214) is said to have granted his palace on the Green for use as a Monastery.  Later to become Trinity Hospital - now being remembered as the Trinity Centre. Otherwise the ancient name ?Trinity? or Tarnty would remain only in Trinity Street (behind the Tivoli Theatre) and Trinity Lane, which runs from Exchange Street across Market Street to the Shiprow. Windmill Brae, Back Wynd, The Green, Netherkirkgate, Correction Wynd, Bellmo(u)nt St, and School Hill all survive today.

The Harbour from the fields of Torry - 1756 AD
In 1738 William Mosman returned to Scotland from Rome, where he had been studying. This is a charming and simple painting of Aberdeen in the middle of the 18th century. Some of the groups of people have been painted larger than others. This allows us to see how the elegant ladies and salmon fishers, working the estuary, would have looked in the 1750s. This painting has obvious faults of perspective, which are surprising from an artist who had studied in Italy for six years. Horses and carts, Coo's and grand wifies abound in this idyllic scene with sailing ships and dingies in the Harbour and but two church spires - St Nicholas and St Katherines?  Sparse housing visible from the heights of Balnagask.



Berryden from the Air - Later developed by the Co-op

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Note that the Queens Links was the site of Aberdeen Race Course clearly outlined and the Old Graving Dock is outlined on Commercial Road.

Low Rise Living

Pedestrian Castlegate preserving the old Garreted Structures and Shops beneath.

 Aberdeen was a low rise city.  The city centre skyline sat only four storeys above street level at the most. 

Post war the advent of Canadian Pre-fabricated homes meant to last but 10 years were erected on various plots of land around the periphery of the town, as temporary Homes but these served the community for as much as 30 years before being removed.  This clearly was a Show House to induce a move into bijou low rise living and a small garden. There was a multifuel stove in the centre of the prefab which heated the water and the home efficiently  - shear luxury with a Kitchen,  Bathroom and toilet inside which were eagerly adopted by former draughty attic dwellers of the high 19th Century tenements with outside washrooms, coppers,  and toilets.  This show home was erected in town centre as an inducement during the slum clearances of the 1950's to depopulate the town centre slums for prompt demolition.

Urban Sprawl


Fine Stone built semi detached bungalow style house for around ?500 with ?40 down when a labourer would get about that much for a years hard work.

Slum clearance and city extension led to large 3 Bedroom Housing Developments in Torry, Powis, Northfield, Garthdee, and Mastrick,











Aberdeen City History


Holborn End of Union Street before Trams

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Last modified: 01/09/2013